How to Help a Student Who Just Lost their Senior Year

Members of our team at Growing Leaders went and asked students how they’re handling the quarantine. One group of high school seniors offered the most telling insights on their final year of school:

It’s definitely not how I’ve pictured it all these years. I’m missing my senior track season, probably prom, maybe graduation, and the last couple weeks, I’ve missed school. People say you never realize the value of something until it’s gone. That’s exactly how I feel, it’s so easy to complain about going to school, but now I miss it… it’s also really sad that we might not see a lot of people ever again. Closure is the big thing I feel like a lot of us seniors are looking for.” – Jenna

It’s super sad knowing that the happiest and most exciting year of school is being taken away from us. Our spring sports are being ripped away from us as well as our senior spring break. I had planned to go to Mexico with my friends and parents, but that too is canceled. Knowing that I’m missing out on all the memories that I could have made during this time is really upsetting. I’m mostly upset about graduation. It’s not cracked yet, but I’m scared that it might be soon and that the whole rest of the school year might be. Graduation is the one thing us seniors have worked towards in the past 12 years, and it’s sad to think we might not have the chance to walk across the stage and get our diplomas. I never thought I would say this, but I actually wouldn’t mind going to school right about now. I miss talking to and seeing my friends everyday. Most of all I miss being able to go outside or run up town to grab some ice-cream.” – Olivia

It has been really hard to accept that I may not be able to finish my senior year and see all my friends again. It’s sad. I’ve always wished to get out of high school, but at this point I would like to go back. Never wish away your time because you can never get it back.” – Sam

To possibly not finish my senior year in school has made me sad. It has made me realize that high school has made me who I am today and how much I am going to miss it even if we do get to finish. I am coping with it by realizing the good in the situation and that’s what I would tell my peers to do to cope. I would also tell them to not take everything for granted because you won’t realize the worth of it until it is taken away from you.” – Monica

Did you notice the one word used by every student? Sad.

The Pandemic Population 

Much like the kids of the Great Depression and World War II, there is a cohort of today’s kids who are coming of age in a very different and difficult time. Life was progressing well for millions of them; the economy was good and prospects were hopeful. And then a pandemic occurred. A pandemic is an epidemic with a passport. It travels the world. It pushed “pause” on life as we know it — commerce, travel, education, entertainment and jobs. And it has had a particular effect on those just coming of age. Who is this micro-generation, and what have they experienced? They are a subset of Generation Z. They’re 17-24 years old who feel delayed by COVID-19. Just as they were entering a new life station, life was postponed.

You might call them a Parenthetical Population. They’re truly the Pandemic Generation.

What’s the Big Deal?

The population of young people, ages 17-24, were already facing mental health problems. Now they feel delayed by COVID-19, and it’s added to their anxiety levels. Part of Generation Z is disadvantaged. While it sounds strong, many of them feel:

  •     Postponed.
  •     Pushed aside.
  •     Penalized.
  •     Panicked.

The teens in this group believe part of the typical American experience was lost to a pandemic. Smart leaders recognize this and lead them intentionally through this time.

Five Steps We Can Take

1. Acknowledge their disappointment and loss.

Host a conversation where you specifically address the elephant in the room: they have lost part of their growing up experience. You might see it on their face. They may feel cheated, frustrated, or disappointed. Telling them it’s not a big deal only discounts what they feel, making them feel worse. What they need is validation (“I know this is hard”), context (“Here is the need of the hour”) and belief (“We will get through this”). Just like a doctor uses a stethoscope on our heart to diagnose us before she offers a treatment, we must show empathy first before we talk about a prescription for their sense of loss. Listen to their heart (what are they feeling?), look at their eyes (what have they seen?), how about their ears (what have they heard?) and their mouth (what have they said?). 

2. Stage an alternative rite of passage.

Proms and graduation parties were canceled. Ceremonies were virtual at best. These important celebrations that say “Look at you! You are growing up! We are so proud of you!” have been canceled, leaving kids with no closure. The few rites of passage we have in America have vanished into thin air. What if you created an alternative? It could be as simple as a large extended family/friends Google Hangout or Zoom call where each one expresses a single word that best describes their affirmation for the student. It can be a “progressive dinner” where you drive from house to house allowing friends or family to chip in a dessert to celebrate (at a distance) with you. This could be the most memorable experience they take from this global pandemic. 

3. Enable them to turn their focus outward.

I have observed that anxiety feeds narcissism and narcissism feeds anxiety. When kids are focused on themselves, it only hastens poor mental health. Sadness sets in. They may never feel they’re getting what they’re entitled to receive. On the other hand, all of us gain a huge boost in our perspective when we learn to live for something bigger than we are. Christine Carter, Ph.D., writes, “Again and again, research has shown that even in dire circumstances we feel better when we turn our attention to supporting others. This is true for teenagers, as well. It’s not surprising that teens who provide tangible, emotional, or informational support to people in crises tend to feel more strongly connected to their community. They cope with their own challenges more effectively, and they feel more supported by others.”

4. Tell stories of heroes who overcame past tragedies.

My dad was born in 1930, which meant the first decade of his life was marked by the Great Depression and the next five years were marked by World War II. He’s told me those days were the best days of his life, not because they were easy, but because people came together to help each other and to forge their way through a difficult time. Like today’s COVID-19 pandemic, the economy spiraled down, and unemployment was high. Hearing his stories always inspired me as a kid growing up. They were stories of the resilient and resourceful human spirit at its best. I suggest you locate stories that inform the narrative of today’s students and tell them. Some of the greatest discoveries and scientific advances have happened during and after epidemics in history. People created new vaccines, designed new machinery, and even launched new industries because “necessity is the mother of invention.”

 5. Help them shape their internal narrative.

This may be the most important intentional step you can take. Research psychologist Brene Brown reminds us we are constantly telling a story to ourselves, about who we are and how we are doing. It’s an internal narrative that informs our confidence levels and the way we approach relationships, work, and life itself. This narrative begins during childhood. It’s how our students develop their self-esteem and confidence. If we fail them, our young people could unwittingly fall into a victim narrative.

  • Life is hard and it’s not worth it.
  • I’ll never get ahead.
  • I’m at a disadvantage.
  • I won’t be able to reach my goals.

This story informs how we think, how we feel about a situation, and even how we act. Our internal narrative significantly influences what we experience in life — positively or negatively — regardless of whether it is accurate. It impacts our happiness, our worry, and our level of satisfaction. It’s been proven that the story we tell ourselves about the reality in front of us influences our life as much as the reality itself.

Let’s make the most of this unusual time in history.

Teacher Chris Dier sums it up this way:

“There’s nothing I, or anyone, can say to make up for that time you are losing in what is supposed to be one of the best years of your life. But (as one who lost his senior year to Katrina) I can offer some encouragement. Right now, you have the power to make the most out of this unfortunate situation. If a decade of teaching has taught me anything, it’s that people your age are resilient and innovative. Your generation can navigate multiple worlds and bounce between physical and digital spaces with ease. You are part of the most racially and ethnically diverse generation, and you embrace those differences in ways adults seem to struggle. You courageously put yourselves out there for the world to see and criticize. You push boundaries and challenge norms. You find ingenious ways to compensate for any gaps you may have accrued without the help of educators, whether it’s through Khan Academy or a sibling. It’s a small wonder why ‘post-Millennials are on track to become the most well-educated generation yet.’…”

How to Help a Student Who Just Lost their Senior Year